|Actor/performance artist John Fleck will perform
the New York debut of his newest, frantic song and dance spectacle, NOTHIN'
BEATS PUSSY, in The Club at LaMaMa October 2 to 19. Fleck portrays his butch
ex-army father, his glamour-hungry mother, a talking fist named Pussy and
an entire cast of characters in this one man cabaret where, according to
Fleck, "blond ambition and upward mobility rear their ugly heads."
Developed and workshopped at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Warhol
Museum in Pittsburgh and the Evidence Room in Los Angeles over the past
year, NOTHIN' BEATS PUSSY takes its title from a conversation Fleck had
with his father about being gay. After discovering an adolescent Fleck
dressed in his mother's nightgown and wearing one of her blonde wigs,
his father's only words of advice or encouragement to his son after demanding
to know if he was a fruit were simply,NOTHIN' BEATS PUSSY.
Fleck's shocking new show explores pussy as a metaphor for the clichéd
American dream his parents hopelessly groped for in suburban Middle America
with their cocktails and blond beehive coifs via the bargain basement.
"Everyone wants pussy," Fleck explains with his lipstick besmeared
Señor Wences-style puppet. "And everyone wants blonde pussy."
NOTHIN' BEATS PUSSY, dubbed by Travis Michael Holder (Entertainment Today)
as Fleck's "newest and most hilarious presentational mindfuck."
"Watching John Fleck work," wrote Holder, "is like seeing
Buster Keaton on crack, racing with total abandon through his dysfunctional
life while we sit howling at his bravely self-deprecating humor."
In the L.A. production, Fleck greeted the incoming audience members with
highballs and his nieces, imported from Cleveland, served cookies and
helped take off people's shoes. Fleck transformed the space not just into
a home, but his home-kitschy, Midwestern, filled with Andy Williams records,
but often sharply poignant and difficult to be in.
Fleck spent a year and a half developing NOTHIN' BEATS PUSSY in various
workshops at Dixon Place and PS 122 before taking the show to Los Angeles
where it had a successful run at the groundbreaking Evidence Room that
prompted the Los Angeles Times to call it a production that "reconfirms
his genius at existential mayhem."
As varied as the multiple characters he performs on stage, John Fleck
is a contradiction in terms. He is at once a scandalous member of the
infamous NEA Four that were defunded for obscenity and a mainstream actor
who is one of only two people to have the distinction of being in all
four incarnations of the modern-day "Star Trek" series ("Start
Trek: The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," "Voyager"
His previous solo shows include "Mud in Your Eye," "Dirt,"
"Snowball's Chance in Hell" and "All for You" (the
last was presented by the Joseph Papp Public Theater).
Fleck will be appearing in a new "supernatural drama" on HBO,
"Carnivále," that debuts September 14. His character,
Gecko the snake man, is part of an ensemble of freak show spectacles in
a Depression-era carnival.
John Fleck isn’t looking for dad’s approval with this
GAY CITY NEWS - VOLUME 2, ISSUE 40 | OCT 02 - 08, 2003
By JERRY TALLMER
Here are two father and son moments for the scrapbook. Portsmouth,
Ohio, 1964: John Fleck is 13 years old.
“My dad drags
me off to the American Legion. They’re having a twist contest
there. Now, mind ya, I couldn’t swing a hammer like my old man,
but I sure could swing my ass and my old man knew that, so he enters
me in this twist contest…”
Strongsville, Ohio, 1974: “I’m 23 years old and had just
moved to California the year before. I’m home for a visit. My
dad sits me down and says, ‘You’re not a fruit, are ya?’
I of course say, ‘No’––me with my big old
Elton John sunglasses on. Who the hell was I kidding? I’m waiting
for my dad to say something, and he finally opens his mouth and says:
‘Nothin’ beats a pussy’—and gets up off the
edge of the bed and walks out of the room.”
And that, less the “a,” gets to be the title of the pungent,
candid, transmogrifying 60-minute autobiographical piece with which
John Fleck, he of the Jesse Helmed witch-burnt NEA Four, returns to
New York. There’s even a pussy to go with it: Fleck’s
flexible fingers and fist as puppet parrot or parrot puppet, however
you look at it. The one he talks to a lot, and ventriloquists back
Each of the NEA Four back in 1990—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes,
Tim Miller, and Fleck—gave the witch hunters something different
to blow their tops over. Fleck’s was the toilet sequence:
“A toilet that transforms into a bar, and then you hear
Frank Sinatra singing, and a voice cries out: ‘Why did you stop
loving me, God?’ and then another voice, from the toilet, God’s
voice, declares: ‘I never did abandon you.’”
“I had little compartments in the toilet, and I took a
fish out of one compartment, and it looked like I was going to kill
the fish by stuffing it with bread,” Fleck recalled. “The
audience is yelling: ‘Kill the fish! Kill the fish!’ and
this one guy got up and is going to kill me for killing the fish,
and I say: ‘What about all the fish dying out in Santa Monica
Bay, from shit ?’”
For such shock irreverence, or blasphemy, and associated other sins
(such as Karen Finley’s chocolate mud baths), the fearsome four
had their NEA grants blocked—“$5,000 for me, that particular
year”—and had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court
to get the modest funding restored. The National Endowment for the
Arts, caving in to Sen. Jesse Helms & Co., subsequently eliminated
what were called “genre” grants.
you could blame us for that,” Fleck admitted. “But if
it wasn’t us, it would have been someone else.”
If you check out John Fleck’s history on the Internet Movie
Data Base, he has 43 film and television credits stretching back from
“Death and Taxes” and “Carnivale” (both 2003)
to “Truckin’ Buddy McCoy” (1984), plus 41 “Notable
TV Guest Appearances” stretching back to “Cheers”
Among other distinctions, he is one of only two actors who have been
in all four of the reborn, latter-day “Star Trek” series,
where he plays a character named Silik.
Lean, strong-featured, hatchet-jawed, darkly handsome, he thinks,
or in any event once liked to think, that he looks like Barbra Streisand—but
to this eye he in fact looks rather more like the young J.D. Salinger.
Pacing through Times Square the other night, the actor/performance
artist kept trying to spot the big billboard for “Carnivale,”
the new HBO series, he’d heard was somewhere there. He never
did find it.
“On Steve Bochco’s ‘Murder
One’ series, back in 1996, I played the gay secretary to the
head lawyer,” Fleck said a few minutes later over a thick bowl
of vegetable soup at the Polish Tea Room. “I’ve done many
gay roles since. Also, non-gay roles.
“Now, on ‘Carnivale,’
I’m Gecko, the Lizard Man, a freak. Four hours in the makeup
chair. And wouldn’t you know it, the second show, they turned
the freak into a fag. Freaks and fags, fags and freaks. Oh boy, here
we go again. My little niche in Hollywood.”
There’s a moment in “Nothin’ Beats Pussy”
when, after a fairly graphic sexual sequence, he asks his onlookers:
“Was [that] gay enough?”
This stems from his being criticized, in Los Angeles, a year or so
ago, for not being gay enough. “And I was wondering, what the
fuck does that mean, not gay enough?”
Okay, he says in the La MaMa show, “I am a lousy homosexual”—and
then, morphing into the voice of his father: “‘Went to
one ACT-UP meeting in his life’… Well”—in
his own voice—“I’m sorry. The ACT-UP family was
an angry family. I like happy families… Big dicks don’t
really turn me on. They scare me. They look like they’re going
to hit me over the head.”
Fleck asked the waiter for a second bowl of vegetable soup.
“Basically, the problem is trying to please everybody,”
he said. “Trying to get people to love you, be whatever anyone
wants you to be. I love to have straight people come to the show,
especially straight women.”
He thought a moment. Then: “I think I’m a strong feminist.
Pussy, you know”—his hands acting out the parrot puppet—“Pussy
equals pussy power. My father, he died in 1983, he was a jack-of-all-trades,
but mainly a carpenter and construction worker. Was into guns and
that stuff, an American Legion guy. Called us all ‘losers.’
But I always had pretty girls and brought them home to Dad."
“My mother died two years ago,” Fleck continued.
“Oh boy, that was a big one. How did they feel about me being
an actor? It was okay, but it was always ‘How much money are
you making?’ How were they about the gay thing? Well, I always
had girlfriends. Still do. I hate that 100-percent thing—that
you’re either gay or you’re heterosexual. Being gay is
not everything to me. I want to see more colors—the gray shades
in between. Maybe I’ll be with women again. Who knows? Give
me variety. When you get too extreme on any side, it gets a little
Fleck laughed and said, as he does in the show, “I kissed Jennifer
Beales once in a movie of the week. Forced myself on her. Scared her,
and she cried. That’s pretty heterosexual. Oh, I used to play
a lot of straight geeks of the week––drug addicts, criminals.
I’ve raped a few women on TV. Put my tongue once into Victoria
“Today I’m coming out of a 13-year
relationship. We’re transitioning. He’s Ryan Hill, a California
artist, now has a job with the Guggenheim. We tried to do the bi-coastal
John Fleck was born May 7, 1951, in Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.
He’s the first-born son and oldest of seven children, one of
whom died in infancy. He grew up all over the Cleveland area as the
family moved around from place to place “once a year for the
first 14 years of my life.”
None of his siblings—two brothers, three sisters—“have
ever left Cleveland. They’ve never seen my show, any of my shows.
Last year two nieces, Coree and Dana, my sister Cathy’s children,
showed up when I was working on this material at Dixon Place. They
served cookies before the show.”
Back in the old country, the name was Fleckstein, pronounced Fleck-shtein,
which sounds Jewish but isn’t.
“I never met a
Jew until I left Cleveland, would you believe it?” Fleck said.
The lineage is German-Irish and Roman Catholic.
was very religious. Went to Catholic school, was an altar boy. Became
a little grotesque with my little rituals at home. Like the Trinity,
everything had to be 3x3, you know?”
And yet, he says, he thought he was actually Jewish.
wore a Star of David from the ages of 18 to 20,” Fleck recalled.
“A friend said: ‘Oh John, you’re just suffering
persecution complex.’ But I don’t know, I just like the
Jew thing. For the most part, they’re smart, liberal, intellectually
stimulating, open, and perceptive.”
If the current show is about anything, it’s about the need for
a home and a family.
“Or about not having a home. Damn
it,” said the John Fleck who had just polished off two large,
hearty bowls of vegetable soup. “I’m 52. You’ve
got to be proud if you’ve survived and you’re 52 and are
still looking healthy and sexy. The gay world is such an age–ist
world. That’s my biggest gripe with the gay world. I’m
still a fairly attractive man, don’t you think? Still got a
More than one person, straight or gay, male or female, might be inclined
to say yes, John, you do. Relax. Break a leg. Knock ’em dead.